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Ideas may be bulletproof, but nobody’s tried plasma rifles

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

13 Comments

  1. Jack Graham
    May 8, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

    One thing: the names "LV426" for the planet, and "Weyland-Yutani" for the corporation (which is simply called "the Company" in 'Alien') come from Cameron's sequel, in line with its dunderheaded tactic of naming and explaining as much as it can from the mysterious original.

    I hate to nitpick such a superb article, but I'm finicky about the distinctions that should properly exist between the original (which I passionately love, and which stands alone) and the other films, especially James Cameron's crashingly awful sequel, which totally misunderstood pretty much everything about the original, and basically dug up the original film in order to desecrate its corpse.

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  2. Adam Riggio
    May 9, 2014 @ 3:21 am

    I respect Jim Cameron's Aliens as a very well-made sci-fi-action movie. But, like you Jack, I consider it, philosophically, the worst of the four Ripley-Alien films. They're each very much dominated by the strongest creative forces in their productions, for better (Dan O'Bannon, David Fincher, Joss Whedon) or worse (Jim Cameron). We have this inversion of rape culture, a meditation on the stark nature of death and suffering, and Whedon's first crack at the theme of how the continuation of a story breaks its ethical narrative coherence, which he'd revisit in Buffy.

    Reading back the continuity points invented later is sometimes sadly typical of science-fiction. It was a habit of my own when I was a teenager, believing that the most fascinating thing about the sci-fi worlds I loved were all the details about its world. World-building is an impressive sci-fi feat, but more often than not, it detracts from what is truly remarkable about the stories. In the case of Alien (or rather, now that it's become the Alien universe), Cameron probably thought he was doing the film a service by making its world more specific by giving the worlds and companies specific names. He was world-building.

    A problem Star Trek will certainly face as the Vaka Rangi project continues is the weight of retroactive continuity constraining the types of stories that a writer can tell in a given sci-fi world.

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  3. Josh Marsfelder
    May 9, 2014 @ 7:24 am

    Fair enough. It should tell you how ingrained those continuity points have become that I still wound up using those names from Aliens even though I went out of my way to avoid mentioning the word "Xenomorph" everywhere else in the piece. It can be a bad habit since the mere "having a name to refer to" part makes things more analytically handy.

    Fun to see some people rake Aliens across the coals for the exact same things that used to get leveled at the movie I'm actually far more interested in talking about, which we can't discuss until the 1990s even though I'm already planning that essay. (For the record, the only reason Aliens is getting covered is because of Vasquez and the toy line).

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  4. Adam Riggio
    May 9, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    If I can vent about one of the things that annoys me about Aliens (1986), it's that they changed the reproductive method of the creatures in a way that made for a better climactic fight sequence but a less existentially terrifying implication. There was a scene deleted from the theatrical cut of Alien (restored on the DVD edition in the Quadrilogy box) that shows Ripley encountering the crew members who were disappeared by the alien, but whose deaths were never explicitly shown. They were embedded in, and being transformed into, alien eggs. The implication was that the previous alien invasion of the Space Jockey ship laid eggs in almost all of that crew, which is why the creature that emerged from John Hurt resembled the Space Jockey. Presumably, if Ripley hadn't put Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton out of their misery, they would have been turned into gestating face-huggers inside the eggs, which would, in turn, create xenomorph creatures that resembled humans in parallel. Instead we get a fairly normal analogue of insect reproduction which isn't nearly so creepy and terrifying.

    Skerritt and Stanton were also both fully conscious during this conversion process, which makes it all the more dreadful. I can see why this was cut from the theatrical release, because I can see how this made the average studio executive simultaneously vomit and soil his trousers. But it's a shame, really.

    However, Aliens' (1986) relation to Alien (1979) does make for an excellent depiction of precisely how the cultural shifts of the 1980s had terrible effects for all the progressive art and film of the 1970s, which is one of my favourite eras of cinema.

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  5. Josh Marsfelder
    May 9, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    "If I can vent about one of the things that annoys me about Aliens (1986)…"

    I mean if you want, and you obviously did…But we're going to be talking about Aliens itself in the not-too-distant future and that whole essay is going to be about how it's different from this movie. So…at least to me it would make sense to save those rants for that discussion. But who am I to say? Go wild if you want.

    I seem to have stumbled onto something of a hornet's nest with this movie. Well, if nothing else, this gives me confidence that the essay I have slotted to kick off book 5 isn't a mistake or personal indulgence then.

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  6. BerserkRL
    May 10, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

    "Weyland-Yutani" for the corporation (which is simply called "the Company" in 'Alien') come from Cameron's sequel

    Actually the name "Weylan-Yutani" (with no D, though I argue here that that's best understood as essentially a typo) is visible on the ship's computers in the first movie; it doesn't come from the sequel.

    While I'm at it I'll plug the rest of my piece about Alien.

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  7. Jack Graham
    May 11, 2014 @ 4:01 am

    Well there you go. He who lives by pedantry, dies by pedantry.

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  8. Daru
    May 11, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    Again this is a response beginning that is triggered from memory, as seems appropriate for the essays you are producing which are moving sequentially through slices of my childhood entertainment timeline.

    I must have been about 9 years when I first saw this film and I have never forgotten that night, despite the fact I hardly saw it. I was on a holiday with my parents and grandmother in a dreary little caravan park on the Northumberland coast, England. My parents were out for the night and my brother and sister were in bed. I was up with my gran and she was not really bothered what I was up to. The wind was howling, rain lashing in from the sea and all I had was little black and white TV with a tiny ariel. Somehow I had heard of Alien and got the TV working and sat up and watched this bizarre film (for 9 year old) made more odd by it made to appear noir-like in B&W, and that I was only able to see snippets of it in between blasts of fuzz and static on the TV, sitting cramped in one corner of the caravan. My gran even was roped into help me to set the ariel better and not surprisingly muttered disapproval at what she did see.

    It was exciting watching something that seemed forbidden, made even more dramatic by the weather and the setting and for that reason this film, and its sequels hold an emotional charge for me – even if the ideas are diluted in some of them. A powerful piece of work whose strength still echoes into the future versions of itself – so thanks for such a great trilogy of posts Josh!

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  9. Iain Coleman
    May 12, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    Christ, until I read this I thought I was the only one who thought Aliens was a low point of the series.

    I mean, it's not that it's a terrible movie. Taken on its own, it's a well-constructed action movie with some cool lines and a couple of great performances. I only started to hate it when I got the Alien Quadrilogy box set and watched all four movies in a row – the Special Editions / Directors' Cuts in each case. Compared to the first movie, which elevated its basic haunted house plot with a Lovecraftian sense of unknown and inexplicable horrors just beyond the bounds of normal human experience, Aliens was just an action flick, with all sense of the numinous, the spiritual, the philosophically disturbing sandblasted away in the name of more efficiently moving from plot beat to plot beat. The best example is the scene in the director's cut where Newt's family stumble across the alien spacecraft. In the first movie, the reveal of this strange and disturbing construction is rendered as a near-mystical experience, as it is glimpsed from afar half-hidden by storms and electronic interference before being eventually revealed in all its glory like a cathedral to some god of sexual horror. In Aliens, it's a quick establishing shot – look, the alien ship, let's go there – and that's your lot.

    I will, however, give props to Bill Paxton, who among this crowd of actors given tedious stock parts to play, at least works hard to give his character some level of dimensionality.

    But back to Alien. It's Giger's artwork brought to life, of course, but as much praise should also be given to Ron Cobb, who designed all the human bits of the environment. It's the best realisation I've ever seen of a sci-fi spaceship that actually looks like a thing people have built to fly through space in. You really feel that every wall panel has wires and ducts that actually make the ship work. The aesthetic triumph of Alien – and it is above all a movie in which horror is achieved through aesthetics – is the collision between the ultra-credible designs of Ron Cobb and the disturbing inhuman logic of Giger's visual world.

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  10. Ross
    May 12, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    It's hard for me to call Aliens a "low point" when AlienCubed, Alien Resurrection, the AvP series, and Prometheus all, y'know, exist.

    On a philosophical level, I will happily concede that Alien is the superior movie, but I do feel compelled to mention that there was a period when I was a kid, around 10-12, where a lot of friday nights, my mom would put on one or the other around eleven o'clock at night and I'd lay down on the floor and watch with her, and when it was Aliens, I watched the whole thing, and when it was Alien, literally every time, I'd nod off before the dinner scene.

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  11. Iain Coleman
    May 12, 2014 @ 10:38 pm

    Watching them back to back, I enjoyed Alien 3 much more than Aliens. It's a flawed movie, but it has at least some of that sense of cosmic horror and philosophical attack that Aliens abandoned. I much prefer an intermittently successful attempt to achieve something good than the slick and efficient achievement of bugger all.

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  12. Jack Graham
    May 13, 2014 @ 12:50 am

    I would also hesitate to call Aliens a low point, given the horrors of Alien Resurrection (which fumbles and banalizes some potentially interesting ideas) and the AvP movies… but I'd defend both Alien 3 and Prometheus. I think Prometheus is a flawed but interesting movie with lots of good stuff in it… it may even be part of that tiny pantheon of Hollywood movies that genuinely – if accidentally – says subversive things. Alien and Alien 3 similarly. I think Alien 3 is a much-underrated and misunderstood movie. Again, flawed, but also rather wonderful in many ways. It's one of the few artefacts of 90s grimdark to still stand up. There are bits of it that actually get into my personal head-pantheon of Favourite Bits From Movies Ever. The Whedon mess is my least favourite (Aliens as at least a watchable actioner) of the main series. AvP hardly registers for me. But then I think the entire series is much better viewed as a sequence of films which all exist in their own seperate and irreconcilable continuity. Alien 3 ends rather magnificently, but it isn't how the Ripley from Alien should end up… and Prometheus, whatever its virtues, rubbishes the original Alien if permitted to be a prequel. Luckily, it fails to convince as a prologue to Alien. The original movie – which belongs to that select group of films which have permanently rented space inside my head – is so rich, strange, perverse, individual and weird (even almost Weird with a capital W) that it remains permanently apart from all the others.

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  13. John Anderson
    May 22, 2014 @ 1:54 am

    Might be a silly question, but I always thought that the Nostromo picked up the signal at random. Apart from the fact that Ash is a company stooge, where is it shown that the company was complicit in directing the Nostromo there?

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